Lionel Shriver’s newest novel Big Brother has some pretty big shoes to fill. Her previous work has won a number of prestigious literary awards and accolades. This is the first book of hers I’ve read, and having just turned the last page I understand why she has received so much praise. One of her earlier books, We Need to Talk About Kevin, was made into a movie in 2011. She has an incredible knack for language, every sentence was eloquent, and each emotion seemed real. The two main characters, Pandora and Elliot, are brother and sister who seem to have strayed far from each other – emotionally and physically. Pandora lives in Iowa with her husband and two step children, and Elliot had been living in New York City when the story begins.
After not having seen each other for almost four years, and finding out that things weren’t exactly going well for Elliot, Pandora reaches out to her brother. He flies to Cedar Rapids, Iowa and she barely recognizes him. His weight has climbed to almost 400 pounds, which is surprising to her, having spent most of his life tall and rather slim. This isn’t the only major change in his life, and the story progresses as she unravels the details of his tailspin.
Their bond is incredibly strong, having survived a rather unusual childhood. Their father Travis had been the star of a goofy sitcom called Joint Custody, which was a Brady Bunch-esque popular show that was still being aired in syndication well after the show originally aired. While working on the show Travis began a not-so-private affair with his costar, which broke their mother’s heart. Their mother was not an actress, not a celebrity in any way (other than being his wife), and couldn’t handle the Hollywood life. Pandora’s mother committed suicide when she was just 13 years old. This strengthened the bond between her and her brother, as they struggled to survive this loss, and their father’s continuing Hollywood career and relationship with the other woman. Watching reruns of Joint Custody is both a way to reminisce and an unusual, cathartic form of therapy.
Having grown up in Hollywood, both have a different response to that unusual upbringing, each going down a different path. Elliot is a jazz musician, has toured the world several times and recorded with some of the most popular and successful jazz musicians of the era. She owns her own modestly successful company, one that started and grew almost unintentionally. He is a rebel without a cause, in the darkest time of his adult life, eating was both an escape, and a form of rebellion. It takes a while for Pandora to fully understand just why Elliott’s situation has deteriorated so badly:
“His weight had narrowed his professional opportunities, which was depressing, which made him eat, which made him fatter. It narrowed his romantic and sexual opportunities, which was depressing, which made him eat, which made him fatter. Fat itself was depressing, which made him fatter.”
Despite many warnings from her friends, and more notably her husband, she decides to stage an intervention. Pandora feels that she is the only one in the world who cares about her brother, and the only one who can possibly help him. She embarks on a mission to help him lose weight – which is quite a lofty goal, as he sets his “goal weight” at about 200 lbs lighter than when he first arrived in Iowa. Wow!
I loved this deeply emotional story – could relate to the strained relationships Pandora had with both her brother and her husband, and how torn she was between them. It’s such an incredible about family – and just how depression can impact an individual. I will now look forward to anything Ms Shriver writes – and may work on reading her previous books.